Bill Gates: Pandemic Disease Threat Could Kill 30 Million People in Just 6 Months

Business and philanthropist Bill Gates has made public health his signature cause, regularly speaking at conferences about the importance of epidemiology. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates has made infectious diseases one of his signature issues, funding initiatives meant to tackle threats like malaria. On Friday, he emphasized his call for focusing on the threat of a pandemic disease, according to a report by Business Insider.

Gates compared the risk of a pandemic disease outbreak to the challenges of preparing for a massive war and argued that we've fallen behind in readying our public health system for an epidemic that could kill 30 million people in just 6 months.

"In the case of biological threats, that sense of urgency is lacking," Gates told the audience, according to Business Insider. "The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war."

Gates has spoken with national security leaders in the past about the risks posed by infectious diseases. The Washington Post notes that he had multiple meetings with President Trump's former national security advisor. Gates has argued the office is well qualified to coordinate a large-scale approach to the threat.

Epidemics and pandemics have always been a threat to public health, but two factors are making them still riskier: environmental changes that make it easier for diseases to break into infecting humans from other hosts and globalization, which makes it easier for those diseases to spread faster.

Gates also used the speech to point to another pandemic risk, the possibility that someone could harness an infectious disease, like the eradicated smallpox, which few people carry resistance to, as an attack.

He noted that the military once ran a simulation of what would happen in that scenario, with disastrous results for humanity.

Epidemiology's latest serious challenges came from two viral diseases. The Ebola outbreak that unfolded between 2014 and 2016 devastated West Africa, but its impacts beyond the continent were limited. Similarly, the Zika virus outbreak that began in early 2016 raised fears of a pandemic but remained geographically fairly isolated.

During his speech, Gates pointed to the importance of catching diseases early as the single most effective way to stop them from spreading. That's a challenge that any one sector of society likely can't tackle alone. Instead, it's crucial that governments, military, and companies will need to work together to address—preferably before the next epidemic specter looms.